The Magic Tricks of True Detective

I love mysteries. I love secret codes. I love the thought of a hidden puzzle that is just waiting, begging to be uncovered.

The real reason I think I love a good mystery is that I’m a terrible detective. Mysteries work spectacularly well on me like a magic trick where I don’t see the sleight of hand. I’ve never met a red herring that didn’t throw me off the scent. I’m as gullible as all heck and take almost anything anyone tells me at face value. I pick up on clues but usually can’t put them all together until Angela Lansbury is halfway through her crime-solving wrap up with all of the possible suspects in the same room. I’m great at pretending I was clued in all along but I promise you I wasn’t. And so, when the murderer or thief is hauled away in handcuffs I am supremely satisfied, my brain thinking back on all the little clues I missed the first time.

True Detective concerns the mystery of a serial killer in Louisiana and the two detectives who are trying to solve the case. In 1995, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are assigned to the case of a murdered prostitute, Dora Lang. The case has ritualistic leanings as the prostitute is found tied to a tree with a circular marking on her back and antlers tied to her head. Other strange symbols are found around the body and similar cases are uncovered after the detectives look into it further. This mystery is certainly intriguing but there is another mystery to be solved as well. Seventeen years later, Hart and Cohle are interviewed separately by two other detectives about the original case. Hart, we discover, has divorced from his wife and hasn’t spoken to Cohle in many years. Cohle, looks like a long-haired hippy, has surrendered to addiction from his days as an undercover narcotics officer and spouts off dark wisdom like a prophet. In the piecing together what became of these men, how the case affected them and where the two timelines intersect we learn that there isn’t one central mystery but two. The show unfolds through a series of memories, files opened and sorted through.

And this is where the show begins to go from good to great. Cohle and Hart are good detectives but they are not good men. It is the weirdness of the characters and the Cohle character in particular that elevates the show to a level that is rarely seen on TV. There are many shows about detectives on TV. There have been countless shows and movies about serial killers. And there are masses of troubled television detectives that have been damaged by their work. But there are few that give us a central detective as profoundly ruined and soulfully wrecked as Rustin Cohle.

Much of this has to do with McConaughey’s performance, speaking every line with a whisper-hiss so that you are forced to really concentrate. Looking like a man who has never eaten a good meal in his life, all angles and hard lines. You get the sense that Cohle is a man who is bound by knowledge that other people would choose to cram in the furthest reaches of their brain: that people, all of them, are capable of truly horrible things and that this darkness, whether it comes from inside or out, is always stalking us. Cohle is a man who has been deeply hurt by his profession. It has made him a disturbed human being but one that can read other humans in dark places perhaps better than his colleagues. A Godless man in a deeply religious world, his room with a small crucifix on the wall (and little else) as if to dare him into believing in something bigger than himself and the horrors that he knows. This doesn’t make him good but it does make him smart. We’ve seen so many cops and detectives on TV who have the seemingly superhuman ability to see horrific things done to people and do horrific things to others and come away unscathed or at least with the ability to forget. Cohle, on the other hand, is misshapen and malformed, unable to interact with others in a way anyone would consider normal. Cohle has seen things and those things have been seared into him, not just on his brain but into his heart. In essence, Cohle has become his job. Cohle is the soul of the show and that soul is as dark and murky as the case he is trying to solve. Damaged detectives, or damaged men for that matter, on TV do not usually look, sound or feel like Rustin Cohle.

Damaged detectives and damaged men on TV often look a lot like Martin Hart. That’s not to take anything away from the character of Hart or Harrelson’s performance (he’s also fantastic) but Hart is a much more standard embittered detective, a guy we’ve seen many times before. A hardened man who has also been shaped by his job but in a more conventional sense. At first Hart seems more normal in every aspect than Cohle but, of course, appearances are deceiving. Hart is a family man but he is often absent from them, eager to spend time with another, younger woman. Hart speaks like a man who has everything figured out but it is Cohle who is the prophet. The show ends up pitting the two men against each other not only because they are so different but also because of the timeline juxtaposing construction of the show. We, as an audience, have no choice but to compare the way these two men live and work and remember. Cohle and Hart work together because they have to and talk to each other because they’d be silent otherwise. By episode 4 (the latest episode to air as of this writing) they aren’t exactly friends but they know each other well enough to call each other on their bullshit. They are partners in 1995. They are not in 2012.

There are plenty of reasons to watch True Detective – the utter spookiness, the abundance of atmosphere, the incredible writing, the beautifully ugly sets and locations – and I’m convinced all of them are good. Not only are the central characters astonishing but so is the overall concept of the show. The show plays out in an anthology format so, as good as Cohle and Hart are as our central figures, we will not see them when the show returns for a second season. And so they will be remembered for this case, for these moments. This has the effect of giving the proceedings a marked precision. It’s as good as the best kind of short story, the specificity of what is on display is astonishing. The story feels extremely focused, contained and mapped out thoroughly. There is none of the wading into murky waters that won’t turn into anything that you see so often with serialized television. There is none of the, “we’ll get there eventually”, that you see on so many other shows. There is nothing messy about the show other the subject matter and the characters themselves. But it is a precise messy-ness, a designed grime.

The most recent episode, “Who Goes There”, is somewhat conventional in its trappings. The episode surrounds Cohle going undercover to infiltrate a biker gang to score some information about the case. Leading up to the biker gang business we are treated to some highly unusual editing for a television show – timelines are shortened and we only get snippets of scenes that seem like they could go on much longer. We are left to imagine what happened before and after a scene where Cohle and Hart discuss how everything is going to go down. There are hints that Cohle might be on drugs before he heads out but we don’t know for sure. What we see is only what Hart and Cohle have chosen to remember. This leads to a shoot out and, to my mind at least, the best tracking shot/long take ever televised. You’ve likely heard about it by now but it is worth mentioning again and again for its execution and choreography. To see something like that on TV, to know while watching that you are in the hands of masters but to wonder, “how did they do that?”, well, it’s something like magic.

One thought on “The Magic Tricks of True Detective

  1. Pingback: With a Little Help From My Friends | The Golden Age of Television

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